Bill O'Reilly Doesn't Get It: SPJ Writer Only Advised Dropping 'Illegal' For Conscientious Journalists
Bill O'Reilly has been all worked up about that SPJ column by Leo Laurence advising journalists that they should stop using the phrase "illegal immigrant", first misreported by Megyn Kelly at Fox as an SPJ "campaign".
It's worth remembering, first, the core of Laurence's argument -- namely, that identifying undocumented immigrants as "illegal" prejudges them in a way that can only be determined by a court of law: Laurence calls it the "Constitutional Principle":
One of the most basic of our constitutional rights is that everyone (including non-citizens) is innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law. That's guaranteed under the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, as I learned during four-year post-doctoral studies in appellate law at the California Court of Appeal in San Diego.
The presumption of innocence is an ancient tenet of criminal law. That legal doctrine is basic to our common-law system of jurisprudence. It has also been adapted by many countries following the Na-poleonic, civil-law legal system including Italy, Spain, Brasil, Poland, the Philippines, Russia and the United Nations. It's often expressed by the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” credited to English lawyer Sir William Garrow (1760-1840).
Simply put, only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an illegal.
So how does O'Reilly respond? With disinformation and disingenuousness:
LEO E. LAURENCE: This is not political correctness. It's a very conservative issue of constitutional law. It just says that in the law and Constitution, everyone is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in the court of law.
LAURENCE: So, it's not a journalist that can say someone is illegal. It's a judge.
O'REILLY: So, therefore, I couldn't call the al Qaeda people terrorists unless they are convicted of terrorist acts. So, I can't really say Osama bin Laden, he's a terrorist because he hasn't been convicted of a terrorist act in a court of law, correct?
LAURENCE: Well, if you change the facts, you change the discussion. I didn't say anything about terrorists.
O'REILLY: No, it's a parallel comparison.
O'REILLY: You are saying that I can't call an illegal alien an illegal alien unless he's convicted of coming in this country illegally and I'm bringing the same scenario to you by saying that means I can't call Osama bin Laden a terrorist because he hasn't been convicted in a court of law. And you say?
LAURENCE: I say that when journalists are in print talking about those who are undocumented --
LAURENCE: -- that's the phrase that they should be using.
O'REILLY: In your opinion and I don't have any problem with that phrase.
Hold it, Mr. Laurence. You dodged my question number one about terrorism. You didn't answer it. So, I assume I won the argument.
Quite an assumption, since as you can see O'Reilly just bullies Laurence here by bringing up a non-sequitur. Moreover, in fact, Laurence's principle still holds: Conscientious journalists who are reporting in good faith will properly describe someone as an "alleged terrorist" until they've been convicted by a court of law or they describe themselves as such (in which case they'll be labeled a "self-described terrorist"); that certainly has been the case for every domestic terrorist who's come down the pike, from Tim McVeigh to Eric Rudolph to James Von Brunn. If you look at news reports you'll see them described as "alleged terrorists" until they are convicted.
It doesn't matter what the authorities say: they are, after all, the ones doing the alleging. And journalists are supposed to be the ones doing the reporting, not the judging. It's odd in a revealing way that O'Reilly assumes that the accusation alone is grounds for the assumption he wants to make.
And that's what really annoys him -- he thinks that Laurence is dictating to him, in some kind of authoritarian fashion, what words he can use:
Number two, I don't mind you calling anybody undocumented. That's fine if you want to use that phrase. I do mind you telling I can't say they're legal aliens when they are illegal aliens as described by the authorities in this country.
LAURENCE: Well, you can under freedom of press and speech.
O'REILLY: They are described that way by the authorities of the country.
LAURENCE: All right.
O'REILLY: OK. Ms. Limor --
LAURENCE: We have a presumption of innocence.
O'REILLY: OK. Again, I go back to the Osama bin Laden argument, OK? Presumption of innocence does not -- does not apply to people who commit and admit to acts, all right, that we know happened. I mean, I'm just saying they are in the country illegally because that's what the authorities are saying.
Equally revealing -- in terms of his monomania especially -- was the bit about how he wanted SPJ to issue him an invitation to join:
LIMOR: You know, we are a society of 8,000 people and 8,000 people will disagree on items.
O'REILLY: How come I've never been invited to join, by the way, Ms. Limor?
LIMOR: He is entitled to his opinion and Mr. Laurence is entitled to his opinion.
O'REILLY: Absolutely, I don't have any problem with Mr. Laurence' opinion.
LIMOR: Others may not agree.
O'REILLY: I don't have any problem with Mr. Laurence's opinion. The problem I have is he's doing it under the banner of so-called group that represents journalists. And Bernie Goldberg and I discussed it last night. Neither of us have been invited to join. We're kind of hurt by that.
Ya see, Bill, SPJ is just a service organization -- always has been, always will be. People join voluntarily because they want to be of service to the profession. Most of the time they get recruited by their fellow employees in the newsroom. Every working journalist has a standing invitation -- you just go to their website and sign up, pay your dues, and you get to go to their events and volunteer for various committees and whatnot. It's all very pedestrian, especially for a bigtime guy like your august self. But hey, you're welcome to join anytime, dude. Bernie too.
And when a writer like Leo Laurence weighs in and suggests, for sound reasons, that thinking, conscientious journalists will want to avoid using terms like "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" because of their inappropriate leaps to judgment, well, a lot of those journalists will think it through and agree with him and heed his advice. Some will not, as they're entitled to -- it is, after all, merely advice, and can be accepted or discarded according to each journalist's own standards.
We know what the standards at Fox News are: there really aren't any. Leo Laurence's advice was for journalists with real ethical standards regarding fairness, accuracy, truthfulness, and accountability. Fox News need not bother.